Review: "Alma Baya" Gives New Meaning(s) to Pod People

Alma Baya

Written and directed by Edward Einhorn

Presented by Untitled Theater Company No. 61 at A.R.T./New York Theatres

502 W. 53rd Street (at 10th Ave), Manhattan, NYC

In-person: August 13 - 28, 2021 (masks and proof of vaccination required)

Streaming on-demand: August 18 - September 19, 2021

Alma Baya Cast B - JaneAnne Halter, Maggie Cino, Nina Mann. Photo credit: Arthur Cornelius
In Edward Einhorn's absurdist sci-fi drama Alma Baya, two's company; three's an ontological earthquake. Alma (Maggie Cino) inhabits a pod on a hostile alien planet with her assistant Baya (JaneAnne Halter), confined within due to the failure of their space suits, their lives measured by the alarms and bells of machines. Then a third woman (Nina Mann)* materializes outside, pounding on the airlock to be let in.

Even before she emerges, naked, from the enclosed space of the airlock as if in a (re)birth, the Stranger's arrival, as she correctly observes later, has irreversibly changed everything for Alma and Baya, no matter what happens afterwards. Her presence proceeds to pick at the underpinnings of much of what Alma and Baya believe about their relationship to one another and to the world (worlds, if we include the Earth)—even as the only assurance that we have that the Stranger is telling the (entire) truth is her own. Little from her accounts of her life in her own pod aligns with that of Alma and Baya, including the instructional manuals that they treat as the equivalent of sacred texts (in a nice touch, we also see that they have incorporated small ritualized gestures into their routine).
Alma Baya Cast B - Maggie Cino, Nina Mann, JaneAnne Halter. Photo credit: Arthur Cornelius
Alma, counter perhaps to the meaning of her name, doesn't trust this newcomer and fears other pods. Convinced that only two of them can live given their pitiable resources and the instruction manual's assertion that any more than two persons breeds "detrimental" conflict, she asserts that she wishes that it could be otherwise but seems unwilling to do much beyond wishing to make that happen, especially any personal sacrifices. Baya, in contrast, wants to think the best of people, but, although she is brought to at least momentarily question what contribution Alma's supervisory role actually makes, she also can't quite let go of the idea that people must be arranged in some sort of hierarchy. And, as the play shows, hierarchy introduces inequality even when only two people are involved.
Alma Baya Cast B - Nina Mann & Maggie Cino. Photo credit: Arthur Cornelius
With its interrogations of moral and social responsibility and existential purpose (it's hard not to think of Waiting for Godot when the characters are divvying up their scant store of carrots and radishes), the play can lead one down a number of allegorical avenues. Visually, the production boasts an appealing minimalist retro-futurist look, from the gray and silver costumes to a hexagonal set with a bit of a 60s Doctor Who vibe and the color-infused lighting design. The shifting, modulating dynamics of the bids for power, sympathy, and alliance among the self-assuredly inflexible Alma, wide-eyed but headstrong Baya, and shrewd but vulnerable Stranger are rendered by Cino, Halter, and Mann with humor, conviction, and subtlety. Even when things get dark, Alma Baya lights up the stage.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

* As a COVID precaution, the play is double cast. The actors in the in-person performance discussed here are designated Cast B, while Cast A features Anne Marie Yoo as Alma, Sheleah Harris as Baya, and Rivera Reese as the Stranger. For the full repertory schedule see the show's website.


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